Stay true to your brand. What separates GT’s from other brands is that, much like farmers, we “grow” our products rather than “manufacture” them. We stay true to the traditional recipe of raw Kombucha allowing nature to run its course.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing GT Dave.
As the Founder and CEO of GT’s Living Foods, a beloved Kombucha brand, GT Dave has not only revolutionized the way people think and feel about Kombucha and fermented foods, but dedicated his life, his brand and even his name on the label, to the philosophy that living foods should be around us and in us to live happier, healthier lives.
GT began brewing Kombucha out of his childhood home in 1995, pioneering the category as the first person to bring the traditional Eastern drink to the U.S. market. The journey began when GT’s family was gifted a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) and he experienced first-hand the positive impact Kombucha had on his mother’s recovery during her battle with breast cancer. Little did he know what started in his home kitchen would become the largest Kombucha company in the world, leading a soon-to-be multi-billion-dollar category. Today GT’s Living Foods is still the #1 selling kombucha brand and retains 40 percent of the kombucha marketplace. GT has expanded into new areas including adaptogenic mushroom tea.
GT resides in Los Angeles with his husband, Allan and pet bunny Madonna continuing to act as a steward for Kombucha and all living foods.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but my upbringing was very unconventional compared to your typical LA kid. From the womb, I was raised a vegetarian and my family welcomed all philosophies into the household, including Eastern traditions. My parents were ahead of their time, frequently introducing us to new age foods like tofu, wheat grass and noni juice. So, it’s probably no surprise that one day they brought home ingredients that a vegan friend got from the Himalayas to make their own kombucha using a lump of bacteria and yeast (known as a “Scoby”). I was 13 when I first tried kombucha, and originally thought it tasted really weird! But my parents continued brewing new batches and were convinced it improved their energy, sleep and digestive health. It wasn’t long after that that I started brewing it myself.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
My mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 and everything changed. Her initial prognosis was really serious after finding a large tumor in her breast, but after some tests the doctors were shocked to see that the tumor was dormant and not spreading to other parts of her body. They asked her if she had been eating anything unusual — like consuming Chinese herbs or medicines. She simply told them she had been drinking homemade kombucha every day for the past two years, eating a vegetarian diet and exercising regularly. The doctors were dumbfounded, and told her to keep doing whatever she was doing because it was working.
From there I became somewhat fascinated with the drink, and did some more research to learn the health benefits and started testing recipes to make my parents’ homebrewed batches taste a little better. I stopped attending high school shortly after to focus my time on brewing kombucha and sharing it with more and more people. The business grew right out of my parents’ kitchen.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I actually misspelled the name of my company “Millennium Products” on my first run of business cards by only spelling it with one “L”. This taught me to triple check everything, even the smallest of things.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books because it shows that you don’t have to subscribe to a conventional path. Additionally, Siddhartha was given to me during my first semester of city college. When you don’t have someone to walk you through a journey you’re really left to your own devices and this book gave me confidence to overcome the loneliness I was feeling as a young gay man and entrepreneur.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mantra is “There’s no time like the now”. For me, this means seizing each day and living it to the fullest.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?
To me, a lifestyle brand appeals to all parts of a consumer’s life through its product(s) or offering(s) and the mission it sets out to accomplish. For example, GT’s Living Foods provides fermented and living foods for every occasion and prioritizes messages that are rooted in nutrition and overall health & wellness.
What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?
The benefit of creating a lifestyle brand is that you have the ability to help people live healthier and happier lives, and ultimately become better versions of themselves. As I said in a recent Inc. interview, it’s magical when you’re creating something people don’t know yet but need.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I have always been a big admirer of Starbucks as I’m impressed with how it has maintained its soul and spirit despite being a HUGE global brand. It has been able to secure a spot as a premium positioned company despite economic challenges, competition on both sides, and shareholder pressures. In addition, it really has a purpose and a heart which is something that I constantly try to maintain with my company and brand. But I’ll admit, it’s not easy and it’s a daily practice of grounding yourself with the reminder of what is truly important to you (and it can’t be just profit and money).
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Something important to keep in mind for growing lifestyle brands is that accepting outside funding will force you to give up certain creative control and business elements of your brand. To this day, I have not accepted any outside funding and turned down numerous acquisitions offers to continue to maintain sole ownership of the company and operate the business how I think is best (including my kombucha formula), and sticking with my core values.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
First and foremost, any brand or business should be born from passion and purpose. Having a clear mission and reason for your brand’s existence is important for longevity. I believe this is what can help any entrepreneur stay the course in hard times and challenges. Every decision you make should be based on that mission, with the culture and community in mind.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Choose passion over profit. I didn’t start GT’s Living Foods to make money. I started this company out of my parents’ kitchen because I believed in the power of kombucha and wanted to share its health benefits with as many people as possible to live happier, healthier lives.
- Hire people that believe in your mission. I found that it’s much easier to build a successful lifestyle brand if you surround yourself with people who believe in its mission and product(s). In the early stages of GT’s Kombucha, I only hired people that I trusted and were truly passionate about sharing the benefits of kombucha.
- Create a community. Having founded the brand over 25 years ago and being the first to introduce Kombucha to the US, I was not always met with open arms. In those early days, I was lucky to have a small but strong and vocal community of consumers that believed in my product.
- Stay true to your brand. What separates GT’s from other brands is that, much like farmers, we “grow” our products rather than “manufacture” them. We stay true to the traditional recipe of raw Kombucha allowing nature to run its course.
- Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t let the fear of being different hinder you from going after your dreams. I challenge our consumers every day to step outside the box and experience all of Mother Nature’s gifts through our expanded line beyond Kombucha like water kefir, our adaptogenic tea and raw young coconut yogurt. It’s not easy, but I remain steadfast in my mission to reveal how living and nutritious foods can help one heal thyself.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
At GT’s Living Foods, in everything we do, we hope to be a guide in people’s health and wellness journeys and lead a movement and global understanding that food can be medicine and that Mother Nature is the World’s greatest healer.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
As crazy as it sounds, I wish I could have dinner with Jesus Christ so I could hear from him directly about his existence on this planet, his teachings, and what he believes is the best way to live life.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.